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The poet's Brooklyn odyssey

When a marriage unravels at the hand of Kate Christensen, it's worth a front-row seat -- for Christensen is a marvel in the murky world of the psyche-in-turmoil, and a master at presenting its surroundings.

In the case of "The Astral," Christensen's latest novel, this means Brooklyn.

It is here that we find Harry Quirk, a poet of middling stature whose wife of several decades has not only cast him out but also ripped up and disposed of his recent work, a crown of love sonnets whose lines he cannot now recall.

"I was hungry and in need of a bath and a drink," he notes of his earliest days of exile from the Astral, the Greenpoint apartment building he and his wife, Luz, had called home for thirty-some years.

"At my back thronged the dark ghosts of Greenpoint, feeding silently off the underwater lake of spilled oil that lay under it all, the poly fluorocarbons from the industrial warehouses. I had named this place the End of the World years ago, when it was an even more polluted, hopeless wasteland, but it still fits."

Bewildered, a whiner -- and clearly someone who hasn't been pulling his weight -- the 57-year-old Harry isn't much likable at the outset. Christensen doesn't deal in flawless characters, and Harry is no exception.

Neither is Luz, a nurse and the couple's breadwinner, whom we meet only sporadically -- a woman Harry sees, in polar ways, as all devotion one day, all psychodrama the next.

"Luz has a cold, impeccable exterior inside which beats a soul as fragile and silken and easily crushed as a baby mouse," he muses. "The contradiction is lethal, maddening, and lovely. Her exterior defends her interior with hawk-talon rabidity. She is quick to judge and pounce, as black and white in her moralistic reasoning as the average eleven-year-old. ... When she is wounded, she goes for the kill."

This time, the kill is Harry -- his "offense" Luz's false perception that he is having an affair with his longtime friend, the freethinking photographer Marion whose husband Ike has just died.

It is to Marion -- and perhaps other women as well -- that Luz thinks Harry has been writing love sonnets.

For Christensen, this is merely a launching pad for her rich ruminations on marriage and the fractures therein -- as well as mind control and psychotherapy, particularly bad psychotherapy.

Put this all in Greenpoint, an old Christensen stomping ground, as well as Brooklyn's Crown Heights and Long Island's Sag Harbor -- and you have a New York novel every bit as fine as Christensen's "The Great Man," winner of the 2008 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

"I feel like I've just come offstage," Harry tells Marion of his banishment from the Astral -- which is an actual, late 19th century apartment building and the subject of an "epic" post-Luz poem Harry begins to write.

"The Garden of Eden is the Astral," Harry says of the poem. "Luz is Eve, and the apple is this book of sonnets."

"Who is the snake?" Marion asks. "Me?"

"Not at all," Harry says. "The snake is figurative. The snake is Luz's insecurity and fear."

Or is it? Christensen cleverly leaves her options open -- introducing Harry and Luz's 25- and 27-year-old children, Karina a no-nonsense lesbian freegan; Hector a fundamentalist Christian who has joined a commune/ cult.

Mad as this all seems, it works.

Trips to the commune, in Sag Harbor, are a reader's treat. So is Harry's first real job, as the only non-Hasid at a lumberyard where he deals with accounts payable. And when Harry -- ever stalking Luz, to try to get her to talk to him -- moves back into the Astral, it doesn't seem at all odd. We are used to the couple's extremes by now.

There will be a reckoning, of course, on both their sides -- but not before Harry acknowledges that the cognitive dissonance he has always cherished in his poetry was most likely the culprit in the undoing of his marriage.

"Writing was the only place I had ever found," he says, "where my two disparate selves could coexist ... where the part of me that wanted to be a good, decent, responsible man and the part of me that was hell-bent on selfish immersion in mindless animal pleasure met and shimmered in dissonant grace together on the page."

Christensen, ever sly, doesn't spell out an ending. But she does make it clear that Harry, formerly in thrall to the meteoric Luz, has earned one of life's more golden freedoms -- that of the freedom to choose.

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.


The Astral

By Kate Christensen


311 pages, $25.95